Photos by Brooke Morill
Seventh-seeded Utah Valley ended its season Wednesday night with a 77-64 defeat to 2-seed California in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.
The loss marked the final game in the storied careers of seniors Holton Hunsaker and Ben Aird.
Hunsaker and Aird go down as two of the three most prolific scorers in UVU history; Hunsaker is second only to Ryan Toolson in career points and Aird sits right behind the coach’s son.
Twelfth-year head coach Dick Hunsaker holds his star players and reserves to the same standard, and he isn’t shy in pulling his leading scorer because of a mistake.
The pair of soon-to-be graduates actively embodied the philosophies Coach Hunsaker tries to engrain in his players on and off the court.
“Holton and Ben were four-year starters and their contributions will certainly set a standard for the program in the future,” Dick Hunsaker told the media after UVU’s 77-64 NIT first-round loss Wednesday night. “They know how to win and both were able to make big shots throughout their careers.”
Hunsaker had 22 points, hitting 5-of-8 3-pointers, and finished with four assists, and Aird added 19 points and nine rebounds.
The Wolverines were within nine points at halftime in Berkeley, Calif., 43-34, following redshirt freshman Zach Nelson’s tip-in to beat the first-half buzzer.
UVU got within six less than 5 minutes into the second half, but Cal used an 11-0 run to stretch its lead to 60-43.
Five second-half 3-pointers helped the Golden Bears pull away to spoil the Wolverines’ first-ever NIT game.
Junior Mitch Bruneel had seven points and eight rebounds, and Nelson chipped in six points, six rebounds and four assists. Senior Keawe Enos had six points.
The preseason accolades have continued to pile up for the Wolverines, following their regular-season Western Athletic Conference championship in their inaugural year in the league.
Dick Hunsaker won WAC coach of the year, and Holton Hunsaker and Aird landed on the first team all-WAC. Bruneel made the all-defensive team, while Nelson represented UVU on the all-newcomer squad.
A well-rounded team that puts the group before the individual gave UVU a much earlier-than-expected chance to grab the Western Athletic Conference’s automatic bid in the NCAA tournament.
In their first year competing for a guaranteed spot in March’s big dance, the Wolverines were the WAC regular-season champions and locked up the NIT bid with 13 league wins.
Holton Hunsaker and Aird constantly preached humility to their teammates, despite boasting heroic efforts on the hardwood that pushed a team that lost three rotation players from last season to its full potential.
Both players topped 1,500 career points while donning the green and white, topping NBA guard Ronnie Price and only finishing behind Ryan Toolson, who once scored 63 points in a game at Chicago State.
Prior to exiting the WAC tournament in the semifinals, Holton Hunsaker and Aird contributed to UVU’s record-setting 70.5 percent shooting in an 83-63 quarterfinal win over Texas-Pan American.
The historic afternoon outdid marks achieved by BYU and Utah, who competed in that league from 1984-1999.
Despite falling short of every collegiate basketball player’s goal to play on the big stage in March, and eventually being outmatched against a Cal team that beat NCAA tournament No. 1 seed Arizona, the leaders of the Wolverines can walk away from their final game with their heads held high.
Aird’s outing was highlighted by his steal on the perimeter in the first half that he dribbled past a guard and raced past his defender for a dunk.
Hunsaker showed his versatility by burying deep threes and sacrificed his body on defense to break up passes.
Their legacy will be one of champions. The entire senior class of Keawe Enos, Taylor Brown, Hunsaker and Aird won three regular-season championships – two in the now defunct Great West Conference.
And whatever success is to follow, whatever overlooked athletes walk through the doors of the UCCU Center where they will find the chance to excel, the 2013-14 UVU senior class will be one to thank for laying the foundation.